Economic Analysis of Contract Law after Three Decades: Success or Failure?

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Modern economic analysis of contract law began about thirty years ago and, many scholars would agree, has become the dominant academic style of contract theory. Traditional doctrinal analysis exerts less influence than it did prior to 1970 and enjoys little prestige. Philosophical work on the nature of promising has captured some attention, but petered out in the 1980s, with little to show for the effort other than arid generalizations about the nature of promising. Academic critiques from the left no longer stir up excitement as they did twenty years ago. Scholarship influenced by cognitive psychology has so far produced few insights. Only economic analysis seems to be on solid footing.

One way to validate a field's claims is to look at its history. Economically oriented scholars writing in the early 1970s had foundational insights, and then over time subsequent writers have criticized and refined them; because these refinements were derived from common premises, there has been a sense of forward movement in the subject, of the building of an increasingly sophisticated consensus. Although critics of economic analysis deride its scientific aspirations, the steady accumulation of insights over time resembles scientific progress. Doctrinal, philosophical, and critical scholarship by contrast has been static. The authors agree or disagree, and about the same things, as much today as they did twenty or thirty years ago.

Yet there are grounds for concern about the economic analysis of contract law. Careful students of its history know that the sense of convergence ended years ago; in the last ten years, theory has become divergent, and impasses have emerged. The simple models that dominated discussion prior to the 1990s do not predict observed contract doctrine. The more complex models that emerged in the 1980s and dominated discussion in the 1990s failed to predict doctrine or relied on variables that could not, as a practical matter, be measured. As a result, the predictions of these models are indeterminate, and the normative recommendations derived from them are implausible.

For these reasons, I will argue that economic analysis has failed to produce an "economic theory" of contract law, and does not seem likely to be able to do so. By this, I mean that the economic approach does not explain the current system of contract law, nor does it provide a solid basis for criticizing and reforming contract law. This is not to say that the economic approach has not produced any wisdom, but that the nature of its accomplishment turns out to be subtle and will become clear only after an extended discussion.

This Essay has two purposes: to document the failures of economic models to explain contract law or to justify reform, and to provide an explanation for these failures. The explanation centers on the difficulty of developing a model of contractual behavior that can be tested and that does not make unreasonable assumptions about the cognitive abilities of contractual parties.

At the outset, a few comments must be made in order to avoid some possible misunderstandings of the argument. First, I will not argue that some other approach to contract law is superior to the economic approach, nor that economic analysis should be abandoned. If a moral must be extracted from the discussion, it is skepticism about how much additional value economics has to offer to understanding contract law today.

Second, I do not make claims about the value of economic analysis for understanding other areas of law. Indeed, my critique rests on empirical and methodological judgments about the contracts literature, judgments that do not necessarily apply to, say, torts or property. Nor do I take a position in this Essay on controversies over the welfarist foundations of economic analysis. (1)

Third, I want to avoid making general arguments about what counts as a good theory. …